Having children comes with some costs. Among the most obvious is the financial drain: The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the cost of raising a child born in 2008 to age 17 will be a staggering $221,190 ($291,570 when adjusted for inflation). Then there are the other costs that have been linked to becoming parents, such as the toll on professional careers, marital happiness, and to some degree even emotional and physical health (what parent out there hasn't dreamt about getting a good night's sleep on a regular basis?)
But an interesting new study in the journal Psychological Science says that parents tend to exaggerate the rewards of having kids in order to justify the costs.
Researchers at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, asked 80 mothers and fathers with kids under age 18 to read a government report about the high financial cost of having children. But half the group were also asked to read about the financial benefits kids can bring, such as the fact that adult offspring can provide financial and other support to aging parents. The parents then took two tests: one measured how much they idealized parenting and the other gauged parents' discomfort and uneasiness during the experiment.
The result: Parents who read only about the price of parenthood were more likely to feel discomfort and conflict than those who also read about the pros of being a parent, and were more likely to idealize parenting to compensate for those negative feelings. Even more interesting, when the parents were given a chance to first idealize being a parent before their feelings were assessed, their negative feelings disappeared.
Researchers conducted a second test in which parents were again shown data about the high cost of parenthood. This time, the parents were asked about enjoying leisure time and how much time they hoped to spend with their children on their next day off from work.
Once again, parents who viewed only the high price tag of having kids were much more likely to say that they enjoyed spending their leisure time with their kids, and that they expected to spend even more free time with their kids when they could.
So what's going on here? According to the researchers, as the economic value of kids lessened (in the old days, kids used to work the fields and factories, and contributed to the family finances), and the cost of having kids has increased, the idea that having kids enhances our lives has become more popular.
But is the happiness we parents say we feel about having kids really no more than an attempt to make ourselves feel better about the toll kids actually take on our lives? Are we really suppressing a deep-seated resentment as we wipe their little noses and shuttle them to soccer games and music lessons?
For me, I can say a definitive "No." No, I cannot imagine how I could possibly love my child more if he brought home a paycheck. No, the pure bliss I feel reading with him or building with Legos or sometimes just watching his formidable boy energy stilled in deep sleep is, as best as I can tell, true happiness. (If this is all delusion, then it's one I'm more than content to revel in.)
Ironically, a few days before I even read about this new study, I'd mentioned to my son that one of the greatest gifts I ever received in my life was the gift of being his mom. I say an almost daily thanks for my beautiful boy. Is my love for him great because I give so much to him? Nope. Despite what this study might be trying to postulate, my love for my child is so great because he gives so much to me.